Farming feature: Fifth generation grain firm looks to the future
- Credit: Gregg Brown
Jewers of Woolpit is a fifth generation grain firm with longstanding ties to the East Anglian farming sector as well as to maltsters and other food processors. SARAH CHAMBERS spoke to its current managing director, Matthew Jewers, as it marks its 150th year.
One of the UK’s oldest grain firms is celebrating its 150th anniversary.
Grain merchanting, processing and storage firm Jewers Grain Ltd, based at Woolpit, is a £5million turnover business now run by the fifth generation of the founding family.
Managing director Matthew Jewers believes the secret of its continuing success has been successive generations’ focus on adapting and expanding the business by evolving and by investing in technology. The firm recently invested half a million pounds in new plant and equipment to improve its offer.
“Turnover doesn’t really mean very much at all because it can fluctuate so much with the value of grain, but we have doubled the business in the past five years by investing in new processing machinery, by expanding the products we handle, and by expanding our site. We continue to invest in the site. We have just invested in a second processing line with a packaging facility,” he says.
“I think that’s the pattern. That’s why we have lasted 150 years, because we continually change and evolve to adapt to circumstances. You have to go forwards. You have to look after your customers in the best way possible, and you have to be looking forward all the time and you can’t be resting on your laurels.”
The firm, which employs six staff and hopes to increase that to eight by next year, was founded in 1865. It has strong links with the farming community and serves a customer base which includes Ipswich-based animal feed firm ForFarmers, maltsters Muntons of Stowmarket and Boort Malt, which has a base in Bury St Edmunds.
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“There are still branches of the family who still farm all around her at Rattlesden. We still talk and in actual fact we still trade with families we have traded with for 100 years,” says Matthew.
The family firm of Jewers was started by John Cocks, father-in-law to Oliver Clover Jewers, an entrepreneurial man who joined the business as an apprentice in 1886. In 1891, after the death of John Cocks, Oliver took over.
In 1930, Oliver’s son, Edward Jewers, joined the business, followed by his son, Clive, in 1961. Matthew came on board in 1998, having worked for several years at an agri-food company in Kenya which supplied major UK supermarkets with processed vegetables, flowers and fruit.
Since becoming managing director in 2005, Matthew has driven a continual programme of investment in the latest technology and increased operating capacity.
This has included installing one of UK’s first high capacity, grain processing Optical Sorters, a state-of-the-art machine which uses advanced camera technology to sort the quality of combinable crops, such as wheat and barley, by individual grain. This unique sorting process enables the production of exceptional quality, high value grain, used to supply maltsters such as Muntons.
Jewers recently extended its grain storage capacity to 17,000 tonnes, enabling it to provide customers with greater short and longer-term flexibility.
Investment continues, with a grain consultancy service being launched this year, to help farmers and maltsters increase the value of their grain. Jewers is also building a bagging and packing line, to offer customers a one-stop shop or outsourced solution.
“We are very much focused on our processing and adding value to the grain and solving problems people have so we are investing and putting a second processing line which also includes a bagging line so we can pack anything from 5kg through to one tonne bags. It means we give people a one-stop shop haulage site, processing, bagging and storage as well as trading,” says Matthew.
But the business does face challenges, including the fluctuating price of grain and other commodities.
The price of grain, explains Matthew, never used to be as volatile as it is now.
“It was always relatively benign. At the end of the 80s through to the 90s, you didn’t really see price movements of more than £3 to £4 a year.”
But by the mid 2000s, these could fluctuate by more than £15 in a day, he says. In the early 2000s, the price of wheat plummeted to about £50/£60 a tonne. Four or five years ago, it rose to £200 a tonne. Now it stands at about £100 a tonne.
“The way we have adapted is we have concentrated far more on our storage and processing,” he says.
“You look to see what works best with your business. You look for gaps in the market. We are still a pretty small company compared to lots of our peers. We are far more of a niche player, so what we are doing is focusing on where we can add value.”
In 2002, the firm moved from its previous home in Elmswell to its current a multi-million pound, purpose-built, four acre site on the outskirts of Woolpit, just off the A14.
“We built this purposely because we were being encroached by housing in Elmswell. We couldn’t expand where we were. We looked for a number of years and found this greenfield site and got planning permission,” says Matthew.
“There’s a huge amount of grain that goes past our door. Haulage is a huge amount of cost to the grain. A lot of it is down to the fact we have an accumulated knowledge of dealing with grain that’s in different circumstances.”
Not only does the firm deal with issues such as drying when grains come in wet, it also cleans and sorts the crops, ridding them of problems including ergot, a poisonous fungus which particularly affects crops such as rye.
It handles around 100,000 tonnes of crops a year, some of which are grown locally, and some, such as rice and soya, which are imported, mainly through the ports of Felixstowe and Tilbury.
“Because we are right on the A14 we are not taking lorries through villages. It’s straight on to the A14 and a lot of grain comes past this door. Our location is ideal for all these things.”
Matthew, who has one sister who is not involved in the business, believes the firm, passed down from father to son over generations, has benefited from the knowledge each generation has passed down. His own father, Clive, was only 63 when he died in 2007, but by then he had already handed over the reins of the business having run it for some years in tandem with his son.
“He was involved up until he died but I had driven the business for 10 years before that. He was excellent and we had run the business together and then I had taken over,” he says.
Before that, Matthew’s grandfather, Edward, ran the business until the late eighties,
“He was a very astute man, a very fair man. My grandfather and my father moved the business within Elmswell and built a site within Elmswell in the early 70s, so history repeated itself with us moving here,” he says.
“As a fifth generation family firm, we are proud of our heritage and extremely excited about our future. Many of our customers have traded with us through the generations and we look forward to them continuing to do so, as we invest in new, innovative services.”